The Ultimate Upper Peninsula Road Trip Guide

The Ultimate Upper Peninsula Road Trip Guide

Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is like no other place on earth. Sandwiched between three of the greatest lakes in the world, it’s filled with peaceful forests, magnificent waterfalls, ancient rock formations, quiet and cozy towns, and miles and miles of shoreline — making it the perfect setting for a one-of-a-kind road trip.

Before you get started though, there’s one thing to warn you about: the UP is big. Like, really big. Like, a road trip across the whole thing to hit every sight you absolutely need to see could eat up a serious chunk of your vacation days. So we suggest taking this guide and picking a segment or two to take at a time, then stitching them together throughout the summer. Trust us — you won’t want to miss any of these incredible destinations, or the beautiful journeys between them, during your summer UP road trip!

St. Ignace to Sault Ste. Marie

Soo Locks in Sault Ste. Marie - Upper Peninsula Road Trip - The Awesome Mitten
Soo Locks in Sault Ste. Marie. Photo courtesy of @asailoratnight

After making your own way north through the lower mitten, your journey starts by crossing the Mackinac Bridge into St. Ignace. Right off the bridge is a classic road trip tourist stop — Castle Rock, a large rock formation where you can get your exercise in for the day by climbing to the top for a great view of the straights. This is also where you’ll find Paul Bunyan and Babe the Big Blue Ox statues and an old-school gift shop perfect for adults and kids alike.

If you’re still feeling touristy, take a stop at the Mystery Spot where you can — well, you’ll have to stop to find out for yourself! A quick hour up I-75 will take you to Sault Ste. Marie, one of the oldest settlements in the midwest. Home to Lake Superior State University, there are plenty of restaurants and shops to quell your hunger (for food and gifts) before the catching a Soo Locks Boat Tour. Though there are plenty of cruises to choose from, the main attraction is the operating of the Soo Locks, where you actually go through the world’s largest locking system and cruise alongside giant lake and ocean ships.

Sault Ste Marie to Paradise and Whitefish Point

Whitefish Point - Upper Peninsula Road Trip - The Awesome Mitten
Whitefish Point. Photo courtesy of Promote Michigan

Leaving “The Soo,” you’ll take Lakeshore Drive for a scenic trip to Paradise (adorable, we know) where you can get some memorabilia and classic midwest fare. Then it’s just a short drive into Tahquamenon Falls State Park, the most iconic waterfalls in Michigan. There are two sets of waterfalls, so make sure you plan enough time for both the upper and lower region of the river. If you only want to stop quickly for a few pictures, the upper falls are very accessible and can let you get on your way. But if you want to stay longer, the park has a campground and gorgeous hiking trails that can easily extend your stay to a day or two.

Once you decide to hit the road, Whitefish Point is just half an hour north. The point features one of the oldest operating lighthouses on Lake Superior, surrounded by beautiful, wide-open vistas of the water. If you’re into Michigan or maritime history at all, the facility also features the coolest shipwreck museum around. The admission fee for the museum isn’t too bad, especially if you bundle as a family, and for just a bit extra you can climb to the top of the lighthouse tower for some truly incredible views.

Whitefish Point to Grand Marais

View of the Grand Marais bay and lighthouse - Upper Peninsula Road Trip - The Awesome Mitten
View of the Grand Marais bay and lighthouse. Photo by Samantha Ward

A two-hour drive is all it takes to get from Whitefish Point to the cutest, friendliest town you’ll find in all of Michigan — maybe the world. Grand Marais, the eastern gateway to Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, is home to only 500 people year-round, but it is the perfect stopping point (or week-long destination — there’s plenty of lodging and camp sites!) for your road trip. Eccentric restaurants like West Bay Diner and the Dune Saloon keep you fed, while kitschy stops like the Pickle Barrel (where the teeny-weenies live) and the Gitche Gumee Agate and History Museum and store provide plenty of entertainment.

When it’s time to venture out, take in the pristine bay beach, soak up the sun, and test your meddle by swimming in Lake Superior — it really is cold though. If you want something more rocky and adventurous, you can head out to Agate Beach and watch the waves roll in.

Grand Marais to Munising

Chapel Rock in Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore - Upper Peninsula Road Trip - The Awesome Mitten
Chapel Rock in Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Photo courtesy of Anna Cook

The next stretch of road is its own part of the journey, and you’ll take H-58 from Grand Marais to Munising for the 198 twists and turns along Lake Superior. On this route, you can top by the breathtaking Sable Falls, Lake, and Dunes. You may have heard about a wonderful lake overlook at the logslide, but this past winter took its toll and tore the viewing platform from the side of the dune.

If you’re really in a hurry, or really don’t want to enjoy the scenery, you can instead chose to take M-28 for the Seney Stretch — rumored to be the most boring road in Michigan. Either route will drop you off in Munising, and it’s certainly not hard to decide what to do there, as it’s home to the Pictured Rocks and all of the great ways to experience the landscape.

If you’re wondering if Pictured Rocks are all that they’re cracked up to be, they are. You have to get away from land, or at least on the very edge, to see the formations, and you can choose from a boat tour, kayaking out with a guide, or hiking to Chapel Rock to view it from land. Stop by Chapel Falls, just east of the Chapel Rock hike, for another incredible waterfall display.

Munising is full of lodging and dining options, though we suggest at least one stop at Muldoon’s for a pasty, in case you haven’t had one yet. But if you want to get your show on the road, M-28 takes you right along Lake Superior for a little less than an hour and drops you off at the hippest town in the UP.

Munising to Marquette

Superior Dome NMU - Upper Peninsula Road Trip - The Awesome Mitten
The Superior Dome at Northern Michigan University. Photo courtesy of Tyler Tichelaar.

Marquette is just the coolest. Home to Northern Michigan University and the Superior Dome, the largest wooden dome in the world, it’s the perfect combination of up-north charm and college town. Though this is definitely the place to take your time and eat at one (or many) or Marquette’s fabulous restaurants, make sure to also swing by Lagniappes for live zydeco music, heaps of atmosphere and authentic New Orleans cajun grub. There are some very cool bars around downtown as well, including Blackrocks Brewery, literally a bar in a house with incredible an amount of charm.

For your outdoor activities, the hiking is outstanding at Presque Isle Park and Sugarloaf Mountain. The tourist state park is exactly what it sounds like, great for a relaxed drive or walk through the forest with the lake in the background.

Marquette to Houghton

Portage Lake Lift Bridge in Houghton - Upper Peninsula Road Trip - The Awesome Mitten
Portage Lake Lift Bridge in Houghton. Photo courtesy of @mr_rossow

From one college town to another, travel up to the Keweenaw to Houghton, home of Michigan Technological University. Between these two cities is Michigan’s highest point of elevation at Mount Arvon. The detour can add about two hours, plus however long it takes you to hike up the 1,300 feet above Lake Superior. It is definitely a must for avid hikers and climbers, but if that’s not your thing, you can keep the road trip moving along to your next destination.

Houghton and has a large number of neat museums and shops for you to explore, such as the Mineral Museum, which displays and sells rocks, stones, and gems from around the world. If you stay the night in Houghton, breakfast at Suomi Cafe on your way out is perfect for inexpensive and delicious classic American breakfast food.

Houghton to Copper Harbor

Lighthouse in Copper Harbor - Upper Peninsula Road Trip - The Awesome Mitten
Lighthouse in Copper Harbor. Photo courtesy of Trip Advisor

An hour farther up the Keweenaw Peninsula gets you to the historic Copper Harbor, a town that used to be the heart of the huge copper industry in the UP. Nowadays, Copper Harbor is bursting with outdoor adventures for dedicated Michiganders to get out and do (though you can still spot green and metallic copper in the water). If you’re looking for a hike, Estivant Pines Nature Sanctuary offers a mix of easy, boardwalked trail with steep rocky pathways. You can of course kayak in the waters around the town to glimpse some of the leftover copper of the past, or hit up Fort Wilkins State Park to glimpse the people of Copper Harbor’s history and walk among the buildings of the preserved fort to see what it was like to live at a frontier fort in the 19th century. Before the sun sets, the 9-mile ride through Brockway Mountain Drive will give you what might be the best view in all the UP, so have your cameras and your “oohs and ahs” ready.

We recommend staying the night at a hotel or campground in Copper Harbor, because the next leg of your road trip is fairly long and will leave you in the heart of the UP wilderness.

Copper Harbor to Ontonagon (Porcupine Mountains)

Lake of the Clouds in the Porcupine Mountains - Upper Peninsula Road Trip - The Awesome Mitten
Lake of the Clouds in the Porcupine Mountains. Photo courtesy of @splat_me

Driving back down Keweenaw, you’ll want to stock up on gas and snacks in Ontonagon before heading into the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park. I’m sure many of you have been waiting for this stop on your road trip, because the Porkies are home to some of Michigan’s most iconic topographical features.

You can’t say you’ve truly seen what the UP has to offer until you’ve seen Lake of the Clouds in the Porkies. Drive right up to the viewing area, or hike around to see this recognizable sight, as it really is breathtaking. There’s also plenty to explore around the rest of the park, such as Bond FallsPresque Isle River, and the many hiking trails looping throughout the park’s gorgeous back country.

Ontonagon to Manistique

Kitch-iti-kipi - Upper Peninsula Road Trip - The Awesome Mitten
Kitch-iti-kipi. Photo courtesy of Pure Michigan

Strap in for your longest leg of the road trip, as heading back east from the Porkies to Manistique takes about three and half hours. Not only will you want stop in Manistique to stretch your legs and refuel, but it’s also home to Kitch-Iti-Kipi (or “The Big Spring”) and we’re guessing you’ve seen this one on Facebook. You’ll get to see the marvels of this genuinely stunning active spring from a raft that floats you out right over the crystal clear blue water. There’s a park store and gift shop, so you can brag to your Facebook friends about seeing to this remarkable oddity in our home state.

This cute town also offers the perfect setting for boardwalk trekking and dining, or you can venture over to Mackinaw Trail Winery for some tasting and relaxing after all your outdoor exercising.

Manistique to St. Ignace

The last leg of your journey winds along US-2, on the edge of Lake Michigan’s northern shore. It’s another one of the prettiest drives you can get in Michigan, with the lake on one side and beautiful UP forest on the other. A quick stop at Cut River Bridge provides an incredible look at a 150-foot gorge dug out by the Cut River leading out to Lake Michigan. It makes for only a 10 to 15 minute stop, but it is great for some pictures and the opportunity to stretch your legs. Other eccentric little towns on your way back to St. Ignace, like Brevort or the Garlyn Zoo in Naubinway, provide even more chances to sightsee while refilling the snack cooler and gas tank.

Coming up on St. Ignace along US-2 will give you a view of the Bridge, signaling the end of your UP road trip adventure. Hopefully by this time you’ll look back fondly on the UP’s striking features, its rich history and its friendly faces.

We obviously couldn’t capture everything great in our northern peninsula in just one road trip — did we miss one of your favorites? Let us know in the comments!

  • Ryan

    Can’t leave out Bessemer-Ironwood. Copper Peak. Black River Falls. At a minimum.